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Happy 빼빼로 Day!

November 11, 2011 2 comments

Ah so it has come again, that most sacred and ancient of the traditional Korean holidays, Pepero Day. It is the day when the young and young at heart share thin, chocolate covered breadstick snacks with those they love, or like, or are casually acquainted with. The story goes that on some long past November 11th, some middle school girls in Busan exchanged boxes of 빼빼로 in the hopes that they could all be long and thin like pepero sticks (hopefully not as prone to snapping). They chose this day, because it was 11-11 and that looks like four snack sticks. That makes today especially special, or perhaps a sign of some sort of 빼빼로 Apocalypse, as it’s 11-11-11, a full third more stick-shaped numbers.

Anyways, to turn off the sarcasm, Pepero is made by the Lotte Company and may be better known to those in the States (at least those who go to World Market) by the Japanese product it copied, Pocky. I somewhat doubt the origin story of the “holiday”, as I heard similar references in Japan to Osaka middle school girls giving each other Pocky to be tall and thin, I will say the Lotte Company has done an amazing job marketing it strongly into the cultural consciousness of people. Rather than deny that they contrived the holiday, they should be proud of their gimmick turning into a full-fledged national event. I’m happy enough for it as it means that I have eaten several boxes of the snack over my life here in Korea without actually having to ever purchase any (they go relatively well with coffee).

In fact, the holiday has worked so well, that there’s even a social campaign not to eliminate it, but share it with a (supposedly) healthier alternative 가래떡 (Garaetteok) Day. Personally I am all for that as roasted 가래떡 is incredibly delicious for something that really has no flavor of its own and I am a well known lover of 떡볶이 (tteokbokki). So feel free to pick your poison, just honor the day somehow with some long, cylindrical food.

 

Quick Hits: 수능 D-Day, Stupid Foreigner Crimes and Painful Protests

November 10, 2011 1 comment

To begin with an FYI, I have put in a final copy of my previous blog post “The Pitfalls of Half-Price Tuition” and it should eventually wind up at least over at Korea Business Central’s great “Economic Slice 2011” series (and perhaps publication in other sources, but no for sure word on that). For now, here’s what has my interest this days:

Educational Thunderdome, 690,000 students enter – 690,000 leave…emotionally and mentally wrecked

Kpop star 지영 of KARA heads into the test, unfortunately booty dancing is not one of the electives

Well for over half a million young people, this is likely the most important day of their young lives, one that has been circled in their parents mind since the day they were born. Today an estimated 690,000 third year (senior) high school students will file into classrooms around the country to take the 대학수학능력시험 (College Scholastic Ability Test) and the exam forms they fill out over the next 7 hours will play a large role in the course of their adult lives. Essentially the countless hours of 학원 work, endless cram sessions and rote learning has been to get them to this point and any hopes of getting into a decent University (and job afterwards) rests almost entirely on the unforgiving examination. The pressure and weight placed on this exam can be clearly seen by the lengths the country goes to accommodate it. All government offices and banks didn’t open until 10am today to try to prevent traffic jams making students late to the exam and nearly the nations entire police force is out on the street and giving escorts to students, making sure they arrive on time. Additionally, last night was one of the busiest nights of the year for churches and temples as parents and family came to pray for good scores. So severe is the security of the test that the professors and teachers who wrote the questions will spend the day locked in a hotel room literally and technologically blacked out from the outside world.

Given what I have written previously, my feelings about this test and the educational system that revolves around it should be fairly clear and I won’t take the time to expand on them now. I’ll just say for now, good luck to all these young men and women. Regardless of what happens, they should walk out of the test with their heads held high as simply running the gauntlet of the Korean education system is an accomplishment in and of itself.

Two Foreigners, Two Crimes, Two Idiots

Artist depiction of an NSET enjoying a completely unheard of new drug

Not one, but two wayguk crimes have been reported in the past week that caught my attention. The first seems to happen every year, more or less, a teacher thinking they can be sneaky and just mail themselves illegal drugs. As you can read over at Gusts of Popular Feeling, Busan Ilbo and later Yonhap have reported that a Canadian ESL instructor was busted for shipping a package of drugs from back home to himself at school at the end of summer break. What’s interesting about this case is how the reports have described the substance as a “new kind of drug” – Hashish. I guess the media has a fairly short-term memory for this sort of thing as it was the same stuff that the infamous criminal mastermind Cullen Thomas was caught with a kilo of that he tried to send through international mail. Really, this is just more proof to point what K-bloggers have been saying since the beginning of time, if you really can’t go without using drugs, don’t come to teach in Korea. I have nothing against anyone who just wants to have a bit of harmless fun, but Korea does and I promise you are not likely smart enough to get away with it. Please take this story and all the others of people doing the EXACT SAME THING repeatedly as a warning and not an idea that you’re clever enough to get away with by putting the drugs in a cake or something.

The second crime that caught my attention was down in Jeju. The protests against the currently being constructed Naval base in Gangjeong have gone international (likely due to stories like this) and American Matthew Hoey was arrested last week for sneaking into the site and damaging construction equipment. According to reports, Hoey is a coordinator for the Save Jeju Island campaign, the minds behind this wonderful website, brimming with half-truths, baseless rumors and photos of little children who will obviously be blown to smithereens if this base is allowed. While I can agree that the government should have been a little more sensitive to location concerns, is too late for that now and the themes of the current protest (it will start an arms race, the US puppet masters are behind it, etc.) are complete nonsense. Like Hawaii for the US, Jeju is the best location for Korea to center its naval forces and protect its interests. These interests go far beyond simply North Korea and include the ROK’s very active role in piracy prevention, increased humanitarian efforts and yes, as a check against China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the Asian waters. Outside of agreeing that its probably a good idea, the US has no part in this equation what-so-ever and I strongly doubt that any American ships will ever call the base their home. Just some things to consider in case you were thinking about climbing barbed-wire fences with your bare hands and tear apart some hydraulics for yourself.

In some cultures its considered lucky to cut off your pinky twice, right?

As proof that South Korea needs absolutely no outside assistance in crazy protests, we have this story of a South Korean man who has been arrested for mailing a piece of his severed pinky to the Japanese Embassy after cutting it off himself (twice). According to this updated piece from Yonhap, the man named as Choi first cut off the little guy in April at a demonstration in from of the Embassy. After going through the trouble of having it stitched back on, Choi again nipped it off the very next month. Having been told by doctors that they couldn’t do the surgery again (my guess is they saw the pattern), this incredibly reasonable man did the only sane thing, putting the rotting bit of flesh and bone in a package and sending it out with the morning mail. Apparently doing such is illegal in this country (who knew?) and Choi has been arrested, although he now has a great conversation starter for the rest of his life. If you’re curious as to what spurred on this unusual form of protest, I’ll give you a hint in a fictitious quote I’d like to imagine Choi screaming as he was hauled away:

You may take our pinkies, but you’ll never take OUR ROCKY OUTCROPPINGS!

KORUS FTA Fight Night: Only on Pay-Per-View

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

In US politics, “pushing through” a bill, “clearing the obstacles” and “holding up” passage tend to be figurative speech, showing the difficulties of negotiation by alluding to physical confrontation. Even casual political watchers in South Korea, however, know such phrases can be taken quite literally here. In what I would consider the pre-fight weigh-in dramatics for the KORUS FTA passage, last night opposition lawmakers physically occupied the foreign affairs committee chambers, preventing GNP members from holding a meeting on the topic.

Rep. Nam also announced that the GNP entrance music for the next session would be LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out", replacing "We are the Champions" that has been used since '02

“I am not going to push anymore to hold a session today.” said translated comments of Rep. Nam Kyung-pil, the committee chair and he absolutely meant it, as for hours ruling party politicians were trying to jostle their way into the packed room. This is not the first time attempted meetings of the committee have been disturbed as previously opposition sat in the actual chair of the Chairman, refusing to move and preventing him from officially beginning proceedings. All this is happening despite party leaders on both sides already having agreed on several concessions and compromises, but not enough for many in the opposition who still feel the agreement still too strongly favors the US. Now, with the ruling party seemingly unwilling to bend further, it seems the stage is set for physical confrontations on the National Assembly floor.

Of course such scuffles are nothing new in South Korean politics and this particular event is downright tame compared to what happened when the FTA was being ratified back in 2008. Back then, opposition lawmakers showed up at the parliamentary committee’s door with a sledgehammer, crowbars and of course a full media entourage. After managing to break in the door, they were met with fire extinguishers from the ruling party inside. Fistfights erupted in the chaos, all under the eyes of news cameras and resulted in national embarrassment that only seems to last until it happens again the next year.

Now from an American perspective, this all seems pretty unimaginable, as ever since dueling pistols went out of fashion, the biggest threat on our Capitol Hill is having to listen to someone talk for a really, really long time. Personally, however, I try not to be too judgmental and in fact would occasionally prefer physical action over how our politicians tend to fight.

Also I think it is important to add a bit of historical context as a possible source of these confrontations. With the 빨리 빨리 true democratization of South Korea, it’s easy to forget that within a generation, Koreans did literally have to fight and die for the right to have their voice heard (the Gwangju Massacre was a mere 31 years ago after all, 광주 민주화 운동). While the issues today are petty by comparison, I can understand the willingness (and perhaps expectation) of politicians to physically prove their dedication to a cause. Similar to how the Korean protest culture has evolved, this is first and foremost a show to draw attention and rally support. In the end, I don’t think any of these lawmakers expect to prevent the passage of the FTA through these demonstrations (especially now that party leaders have made agreements) but rather want to show their supports, peers and string-pulling seniors that the literally fought the issue without giving in.

Bit of Literature History in a New Google Doodle

October 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Just wanted to quickly post the Google Doodle I saw on my browser today (I assume just for Google users in Korea):

This image is a very nice little artistic tribute to noted Korean author Park Won-suh (박완서). One of Korea’s most respected authors, she passed away towards the beginning of the year. This image really could have been inspired by any one of her many novels or short stories that dealt with her experiences as a child growing up in rural Korea leading up to the war. Perhaps most widely available to an English audience is “Who Ate Up All the Shinga?” an autobiographical account of her childhood. The themes of her life as a woman in post-war Korea is evident as well in other works such as “A Sketch of the Fading Sun” Nice to get a bit of history and culture with my morning coffee.

The Homeless in Seoul: A Growing Problem? Maybe, but Why?

September 26, 2011 1 comment

A couple of stories caught my eye over the weekend, both dealing with homelessness in South Korea. The first is just a short stat blurb from Yonhap saying in entirety:

SEOUL, Sept. 25 (Yonhap) — Despite the government’s perennial efforts to reduce social bipolarization, the number of homeless people nationwide is on the rise, government data showed Sunday.

As of the end of June, a total of 4,403 people were classified as homeless, up from 4,187 people at the end of 2010, according to the data submitted by the Ministry of Health and Welfare to Rep. Yoo Jeong-bok of the ruling Grand National Party.

Now even if that number is a bit low (as government numbers tend to be given the broad possible definition of “homeless”), we are still looking at an incredibly small number , even in comparison to other developed countries. Even in Seoul, where the vast majority of South Korean homeless live, I would argue the actual percentages and ‘visability’ of the homeless is much lower than USA urban centers. Even Seoul Station, the defacto homeless mecca within the capital, is no worse than Denver’s Capital Hill area on a usual day.

The second story that caught my attention (HT to Korea Beat) was actually the number 1 story on Naver this past week. The original article is unfortunately in Korean. To summarize, it was found that a homeless man in Seoul has been walking around with about 5 Billion won in cashier checks and currency in a large bag. That’s billion with a B and if correct, converts to around 5 million dollars US. This came to light only after the bag was stolen by another homeless man in the area (who apparently didn’t open it) and the police helped the owner get it back. The world’s richest hobo, who apparently used the bag of wealth as a pillow, is a 51 year old man who inherited a large fortune from his parents as a young man, lived fast and loose for many years with fast cars, nice homes and never got married. After a business failed, he stopped working at all and over years sold his homes, cars and removed all his money from investments and banks. Towards the end of last year, he finished his purge and began living on the streets, forgoing even hotels or homeless shelters. He has said he will continue to do so, although he may now consider returning some money to banks and carry a debit card instead of the bag.

These stories got my mind going on the idea of homelessness in Korea and the causes. In a country with such good employment numbers (3.3% according to recent data) and a fairly strong sense of social welfare (at least monetarily), just why are the numbers increasing? In my mind, there are two major social problems in Korea and both of these undoubtedly affect the homeless issue, so rather than a problem in itself perhaps it is simply a symptom of bigger issues. As mentioned above, a trip to Seoul Station is about the only place to be really confronted with the homeless in Seoul. Media attention has recent been given to this location, such as this story from the WSJ Online, as increased numbers have lead to increased complaints from travelers. Recently, an even bigger spotlight has been put on the issue as last month the old Seoul Station has been turned into a cultural space, trying to attract visitors (these this post over at MH). While I would rank the homeless as the (by far) second annoyance of Seoul Station behind the very loud evangelicals, a quick look around them and you’ll get the immediate impression that these men aren’t well. As discussed in previous posts, South Korea is severely deficient and under-developed in terms of identifying and treating mental illness. The government and social groups may be providing beds and food to these people, but given that only 20% are taking advantage of this, we have to assume the rest don’t have the mental capacity to accept this help. Undoubtedly, there are mental health issues at play with homeless problems around the world, but South Korea’s inability, or unwillingness, to recognize and treat this core problem means worsening symptoms. Additionally, and still connected to mental health, Korea has a very quickly aging population (one of the highest rates in the world). As the population ages, rates of dementia increase as well. When we consider that alcohol abuse only quickens the deterioration of the brain, we can see why South Korea is seeing increased numbers in a very specific population segment (older males) and why increased welfare hasn’t helped. Hopefully increased numbers will lead to increased awareness on the root problems. Treating the symptoms (not only homelessness, but suicide rates as well) will never truly make the country better, but better mental health can.

 

Categories: Korean Society

Sobering Statistics: The Biggest Social Problem in Korea

September 5, 2011 8 comments

In what seems to have become an annual rite these days, reports have named South Korea as having the leading suicide rate of all OECD nations. The latest data, taken from 2009, presents shocking numbers to those who haven’t heard them before. A total of 15,413 people died by their own hands in that year, an average of over 42 per day. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, suicide has now become the number one cause of death among those aged 10-40, beating out auto accidents, cancer and all other diseases. Among those in their 20’s, the suicide rate was nearly equal to all other deaths combined at a mind boggling 44.6% in 2009.

While the raw numbers always manage to surprise me, unfortunately they aren’t saying anything new and the calls for greater prevention and support with undoubtedly follow as well. The question is, will anything really happen? A look through blogs and news archives shows that the problem has been a part of the social consciousness for at least the past five years.

Suicide in South Korea Case of Too Little, Too Late (OhMyNews Feb. 2007)

S. Korea has top suicide rate among OECD countries: report (The Hankyoreh Sept. 2006)

Reading these and reports from other years, you can see how interchangeable they really are. Unfortunately, the only thing that is changing is the numbers (they are still going up). Additionally, the international media have began to take notice as well, focusing on the angle of high profile suicides among celebrities and as a cautionary social note in the backdrop of Korea’s meteoric rise.

Suicide in South Korea (The Economist July 2010)

South Korea’s Suicide Problem (The Wall Street Journal July 2010)

Again, they had to break the graph

What is perhaps the most troubling point of all is how incredibly recent this trend has began. In only about 20 years, South Korea went from having one of the lowest suicide rates of developed countries (7.9 per 100k in 1990, well below the OECD average of 13.9) to the by far and away highest (the 2009 rate nearly 10 suicides per 100k higher than Japan, the number two nation). So incredible is this increase, that in reporting the statistics for 1990-2006, the OECD had to insert a chart break in a graph expressing a general downward trend in OECD nation suicide rates. That number just seems so patently impossible, 172% increase in 16 years. Also note that the 2006 numbers showed a brief dip in the rate before beginning another upward trend. If we then take into account the 2009 numbers, we have a well over 200% change over two decades.

 

Undoubtedly, a number of social issues in modern Korea undoubtedly are playing a role in the staggering increases. Common themes include hyper-competitive education and job markets, increased emphasis on social status and appearance, the aforementioned (and constant) celebrity suicides and the break down of traditional support networks. While certainly steps can be taken to mitigate the effects of these phenomena, they will still be facts of modern Korean society and can’t be eliminated completely. Therefor, any solutions based solely around them will be fatally flawed. In my view, the key will be for Korea as a society to revise its view on mental health. The government has attempted to do its part by increasing the number of mental health care facilities available and according to a 2006 World Health organization report, adequate numbers of mental health specialists exist. The problem, then, seems to lie with the use of these resources, integration into general health care and (as mentioned before on this blog) largely negative public opinion towards mental health care. For those without “severe” mental health issues (such as those requiring hospitalization) care and treatment are incredibly limited, clustered only around major urban areas and (if made public) have strong stigmas of personal failure and severe deficiency for those who utilize them. This social stigma, perhaps more than anything else, may be what drives the rates so high, with death seeming to be a better option than living with the assumed shame of seeking help.  When I literally look around the Korean landscape with my Western eyes, the complete invisibility of self-service mental health care (psychiatric offices, counseling centers, etc.) is clearly evident and while I feel countries like the US have become too reliant on “chemical care” for mental health, if the other option what we see in Korea, then bring on the pills. I do hope, though, that the future doesn’t lie in either of these extremes. In general, I greatly admire the Korean health care system, especially in how it blends modern Western techniques with Eastern practices and both well supported by the public. If similar systems can be found to treat the mind as well as the body, then perhaps the trends can be tamed and perhaps even reversed. Unquestionably, the first step in any solution will have to take place in the minds of the public. Not just to recognize the problem, as we can see that has already been done, but to accept and seek out the solutions, wherever they might be. Once this has been done, then perhaps the stories can be a bit different in the future.

On a side note, while researching this post and finding some historical sources, I can across this Time magazine piece from 1991.

South Korea: The Tale Behind a Suicide (Richard Hornik, June 1991)

It is a story that I highly recommend reading, looking at one of the well known cases of self-immolation martyrdom among Korean youth at the crucible time between South Korea’s totalitarian past and democratic future. While I personally disagree with suicide ever really being a best solution, I can understand the point that these young people died for something and the nation gained from their sacrifice. Perhaps here, we can see the roots of the social quasi-acceptance of suicide in the modern society. It is a grim irony that the timing of these deaths coincided with the start of the statistics named above, as perhaps we can see the small number of martyrs growing into an avalanche, the death by choice in common, but with purpose and principle lost.

 

Korea and Japan: A Comparison of Contrasts or a Contrast of Comparisons

August 30, 2011 7 comments

Well, I have returned from vacation. Richer in experience and no poorer from the casino, so I guess that makes a successful trip. Unfortunately, as much as I love to travel by air, most anytime I take a plane I wind up sick, so I’m dealing with that now. Anyways, on to my topic for the day. As an outside observer who has lived in both countries, I am often asked my feelings about Japan and Korea, their differences and the frequent hot button issues between them. My living preference should be relatively obvious, given my current location, the amount of time I’ve spent in each country, whom I chose to marry and simply that The リ in 日本 doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as a blog title. That being said, it is still an interesting topic and one I have formed some opinions on over the years.

An apt comparison, or am I just hungry?

Now as a man who will frequently think with his stomach, I find an interesting societal comparison in the foods of the two nations (both of which I find delicious). In Japan, as we can see in the left picture, each dish has its place and should be enjoyed separately. The flavors are understated and savory, with just an occasional kick of wasabi giving some spice. In Korea, the dish is still organized, but more as organized chaos. Everything gets thrown together and all mixed up. The flavors tend to be very strong and in your face, there’s very little subtlety with kimchi.

Now how does this vague and poorly put-together comparison apply to society as a whole? During my time in Japan, I felt the country and the culture was very beautiful with a lot to offer, but incredibly organized to a stifling degree. While this organization may make for an incredible public transportation system, living within it was suffocating at times. Just like I couldn’t add soy sauce to my rice, in the classroom I couldn’t add or modify my lesson plans, which were specified down to the minute for each class. Even on the hottest days, I had to be in my suit and tie (dark suit, white shirt, only a red or blue tie as specified on page 156 of my employee manual) because that’s how everyone is supposed to look. On many of these summer days, the humidity seemed matched by oppressive mass of conformity in the air. Additionally, similar to the flavors of its food, the emotions of its people seem equally reserved and held beneath the surface. I know I am painting far too broad of strokes here, but during my time in Japan I was continually frustrated by my inability to discern what people were feeling (and I consider myself a fair reader of people). For Star Trek fans out there, maybe the best comparison I could make is that the people all seemed to have a bit of Vulcan blood in them, with the suppression of emotion as a cultural trait.

I will admit, I never had to wait so long for the Japanese subway.

Korea, on the other hand, strikes me as a lot like a good bowl of bibimbap. For all it’s disorganization and madness on appearance, everything tends to come together with purpose and combine to make a great dish. Anyone who has spent any significant time living here can tell you that one of the few constants is change. Often, these changes seem without any rhyme or reason (or notice in the case of those expat teachers out there who walk into empty classrooms) and this can be an incredibly frustrated experience, especially for those who like a bit of order to their lives. These rapid changes can also be seen across the physical landscape of Korea (especially urban areas) where the bahli bahli almost overnight transform some dilapidated fishing docks into a modern, techno playground for the 2012 Yeosu Expo. As for the people, while I wouldn’t consider Koreans in general to be overtly emotional on a daily basis, like biting into a gochu pepper, the spice tends to come hard and fast with little warning. Screaming matches are not uncommon and scuffles can erupt even on the floors of the national legislature. This trait is not only limited to anger, though, as in general I find Korean people much more willing and able to express joy, sadness, kindness and everything in between.

Now, all that being said, I would like to turn to what really is the main point of this post, and what I feel is a strong reason why the bickering and fighting continues over seemingly trivial matters. Despite the differences on the surface, Japan and Korea are inexorably tied and remarkably similar. They are, in a way, like brothers (or if brothers is too strong a word, at least cousins). They share not only physical characteristics, but mental make-ups forged from a similar ‘upbringing’ as cultures (feudal, warring territories unified to kingdoms generally cut-off from Western civilization to (slowly) modern democracies and economic forces). In this analogy, Japan would have to be considered the ‘big brother’ due to it’s greater size, population and historical emergence to the world stage. As a big brother, it often feels it knows what is better for it’s sibling and often will try to force the issue. South Korea, as the younger brother, then often feels under the thumb and in the shadow of Japan, causing it to lash out strongly at even the smallest issues. Please note that this comparison is in no way excusing or otherwise explaining the forced annexation of Korea by Japan, but this time period does certainly provide further evidence and context to the analogy. The fact is the nations are too closely tied to simply wash their hands of one another, but a history too scarred completely open up to one another, at least at the current time. I do believe that time will heal these scars eventually, however, and when that happens a new generation of Koreans and Japanese may find they are not so different after all.

Can you really tell the difference?